Philosophy On The Table: A Conversation With Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini is a philosopher who loves good food, but who is also interested in food as a philosopher. He believes that understanding our relationship with food can help us understand who we are and how we relate to each other, to animals and to the natural environment. Baggini brings his philosophical skills and clarity to some of the most important issues concerning food, and subsumes them under a comprehensive conception of human nature and the role food plays in our lives.

In 1997 Baggini co-founded The Philosopher’s Magazine and served as its editor for thirteen years. He has authored, co-authored or edited over 20 books and has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, as well as for the think tanks The Institute of Public Policy Research, Demos and Counterpoint. He has also been philosopher-in-residence at such diverse institutions as the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield (September 2014-), National Trust at the White Cliffs of Dover (September 2013), Cheltenham Literature Festival (October 2012), and Wellington College (2010-11). Baggini has also appeared as a character in two Alexander McCall-Smith novels.

In 1997 Baggini co-founded The Philosopher’s Magazine and served as its editor for thirteen years. He has authored, co-authored or edited over 20 books and has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, as well as for the think tanks The Institute of Public Policy Research, Demos and Counterpoint. He has also been philosopher-in-residence at such diverse institutions as the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield (September 2014-), National Trust at the White Cliffs of Dover (September 2013), Cheltenham Literature Festival (October 2012), and Wellington College (2010-11). Baggini has also appeared as a character in two Alexander McCall-Smith novels.

Julian Baggini likes to describe himself as a 'philosophical entrepreneur'. After attaining his PhD in philosophy from the University College London, he pursued a career outside the academe, though still in philosophy. He has been the founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine and served as its editor for thirteen years. Baggini has been a prolific writer and editor. He has authored, co-authored or edited over 20 books and has written for a variety of newspapers, magazines and think tanks. He has also been writer or philosopher-in-residence of a number of important institutions. 

Baginni’s deep and varied interest in food has found expression in numerous articles, talks or even youtube videos, culminating in his book The Virtues of the Table, published in 2014 to critical acclaim. Baggini's book is a brilliant achievement. It covers an impressive variety of food-related issues, such as fair trade, animal welfare, sustainability, slow food, health and diet, food aesthetics, and unifies them in a compelling vision of who we are and how to live our lives well.

Baggini presents his ideas in a lucid and insightful fashion, accessible to the non-expert. His vision is informed by the philosophical tradition and by a meticulous engagement with the issues he discusses. Readers with a background in philosophy will recognize familiar ideas put into novel practice on a subject not frequently discussed by philosophers. Readers unfamiliar with philosophy will still be able to appreciate the book and will be rewarded with valuable insights and stimulating new ways of thinking about issues widely debated among sophisticated food lovers. And readers who enjoy cooking will even find suggestions about how to apply some of these ideas in the kitchen, as each chapter ends with a “recipe” of some sort (actually, Baggini has some really intriguing things to say about recipes), illustrating the ideas discussed in the chapter.

 


S.J. You write about food from a philosophical perspective. Is there a “philosophy of food”? If yes, what is it about?

J.B. There can be a philosophy of more or less everything: sport, technology, love. Such philosophies unpick the values, assumptions and meanings of what we do. The philosophy of food, however, is a particularly rich subject because food connects us with everything of importance in life: Our bodies, our minds, our creativity, our mortality; as well as our relations to others, to animals, to the environment. Food tells us a lot about what it means to be human, which is to be neither a best merely feeding nor some kind of pure mind or soul that does not need to eat.S.J. You write about food from a philosophical perspective. Is there a “philosophy of food”? If yes, what is it about?

S.J. Traditionally, philosophers have paid little attention to food as a subject for philosophical investigation. Do you think that the situation is changing? Are there more philosophers today working on food-related subjects?

J.B. It is changing. To give just a few examples, a major collection of essays edited by David M. Kaplan, The Philosophy of Food, was published recently by the University of California Press; the University of North Texas runs a Philosophy of Food Project; while Barry Smith is doing a lot of work around food and drink at the Centre for the Study of the Senses (CenSes) at the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

S.J. Should food lovers and food professionals be interested in what philosophers have to say about food?

J.B. “Should” is too strong. There are many ways of being in the world and not all of them require a high degree of analytic, reflective thinking. Some might fear that subjecting your passion to philosophical scrutiny might ruin it, but I think it will only enhance it. For example, it is helpful to see that there is nothing shallow or trivial about having a love of food. At its best, it can contribute to an engagement with life that fully accepts is transitory nature and yet finds moments of beauty and value. At the same time, however, it is also good to be aware of the dangers of being too attached to fleeting moments. A robust philosophy of food can help us get in the right relationship with our mortal, temporary lives. 

S.J. Your approach appears to be guided by the idea that our relation to food shows something important about who we are and how we should live. So, what food has to tell us about human nature and living well?

J.B. One key idea is that we are neither beast nor angels. We live neither completely in the moment, like (most?) other animals, but nor can we transcend our bodies and aspire to immortality. To live well, we have to do justice to both our animal and “higher” natures. Every time we eat we can practice cultivating the right balance. We can be aware that we are mortal, physical creatures but also that our lives extend beyond what we are doing right now and beyond who we are with right now, to those who grew or made our food. So, to borrow and adapt Kierkegaard’s terminology, in eating we are aware that we are both aesthetic creatures, wedded to the moment and our corporeality; but also ethical creatures, extended over time and in relation to others.

S.J. Your book covers a wide variety of hotly debated issues concerning food. What is the distinctive perspective you bring to these debates?

J.B. Perhaps that is not for me to say, but I hope I bring a certain degree of clarity and lack of partisanship. In debates about animal ethics, fair trade and the environment, for example, most protagonists tend to have a clear position on one side. I hope to bring out some of the complexities. Yes, animal welfare is an issue but vegetarianism can be a crude way of dealing with it. Yes, farming must be sustainable but organics is not the only answer, and nor is it perfect. Yes, trade should be fair but formal FairTrade systems are not always the best way of making it so. In each case, I’m trying to dig a bit deeper, to get to what really matters.

S.J. As a means of illustrating your approach, I will present you with a few key terms and you can briefly explain your view on the relevant issues: local, organic, healthy, animal welfare, fair trade.

J.B. That’s a long list so my answers are only going to point to answers, not provide them all. Local food is often good when it is fresher, more sustainable, connects you to your culture and history, and keeps you in tune with the seasons. But local is not always best and embracing food from afar is a healthy part of a positive open-minded internationalism.

Organic is not a natural kind, it is a very specific set of standards with a very strange history. Some of its rules are bizarre. If you know nothing about food except that one is organic and one isn’t, that is a good reason to buy the organic alternative. But many non-organic foods are just as good or better.

To understand healthy eating it helps to understand how scientific knowledge advances. The fact is that we don’t know enough to prescribe specifically what you should or should not eat. We should be humble and accept that what science tells us is that we should base our diets around mainly plant-based whole foods, but that nothing is so bad that we should avoid it completely.

Animals in the wild have hard, often short lives. The cycle of life and death is an inevitability and so to think animal death should be avoided is a fantasy. What matters is welfare: why make animals suffer any more than they must? That means not avoiding meat, but making sure all animal products you buy, including eggs and dairy, come from well-reared animals. A vegetarian who buys milk from cows living in terrible conditions is doing less for animal welfare than a carnivore who eats steak from a well-cared-for, grazing cow. 

Fair Trade simply means making sure that you are not enjoying your food only because the person who made it cannot live a decent life. Fair Trade schemes provide a decent indicator where no other information is available, but they have many limits. Many producers simply can’t join such schemes because they are too small, aren’t in co-operatives, or can’t afford the fees. We should all try to understand better the supply chains that lead to us and adjust what we buy accordingly.

Hummus and escaping the tyranny of recipes. Julian Baggini.

S.J. Enjoying good food is a carnal pleasure and is frequently associated with hedonism. You deal with this issue in the final chapter of your book which has the intriguing title “Seize not the day” and the equally intriguing subtitle “Mindfulness”. What is the idea behind it?

J.B. The problem with seizing the day is that time can’t be caught in our hands, it is always slipping away. There is a kind of hedonism that is therefore doomed to constant dissatisfaction, because every pleasure immediately becomes of the past and the present is left empty, always in need of filling. The key to enjoying life is therefore to be able to cultivate a deep and keen appreciation of the pleasures of the moment while at the same time allowing them to pass without regret. This kind of enjoyment without attachment is, I think, a form of mindfulness,

S.J. The aesthetic appreciation of food is another subject you examine in your book. Is fine food a form of art?

J.B. Whether we call it art or not, there is clearly a great degree of skill and creativity in the best chefs. I think we ought to embrace the idea that there is an aesthetics of food which is in its own way rich, valuable and worthy of respect. Whether we put in the same category as the other arts is secondary. 

S.J. Saying grace and fasting are two practices typically associated with religion. However, you argue that they can be meaningful even for non-believers and should actually have a place in our relation with food. How can this be?

J.B. Saying grace is a powerful way of encouraging gratitude, which I think is incredibly important. Ingratitude is increasingly common and has several bad effects. The ungrateful tend to be less satisfied with what they have, more greedy for more, and more likely to think they they deserve more than others. They also give less thought to how their buying choices affect others. So ingratitude is both bad for inner contentment and also bad for social justice.

Another modern problem is that we live in a society where instant gratification is almost always available. This can leave us constantly unsatisfied, always looking for more. Fasting can break us out of these patterns by breaking the link between desire and action, reminding us that we do not always have to automatically act on every desire we have. This makes us more in control of who we are. It reminds us that true freedom is about self-control, while acting on our desires without any kind of constraint is not so much freedom as a slavery to our appetites.

S.J. You finish each chapter with concrete examples of specific foods that are relevant to the issues you treat but also illustrate a distinctive approach to recipes. And you discuss the later in a chapter with the challenging title “Tear up recipes”. So, what are your thoughts on recipes and cookbooks?

J.B. Of course they can be useful, but they also reflect part of the problem with our culture, which is that many people can’t cook anything unless they follow clear, step-by-step instructions. This reflects a wider cultural problem, which is that rules, codes and algorithms have displaced judgement and experience.

S.J. Do you think there is an audience for a philosophical treatment of food-related issues in a manner accessible to non-experts? What could be done to make more people interested in it?

J.B. There is an audience but it is not as large as I would like it to be! In Britain, people are very suspicious of intellectualising everyday things. They often worry it is pretentious. To make people more interested we have to show them that this is not abstract or academic, but deeply related to their real concerns.

S.J. What are your plans for the future? Are you currently working on any food-related projects?

J.B. Food is not at the centre of my work at the moment but I continue to write occasional pieces about it, as well as give talks. I expect it to remain part of my work and have hopes for another short book on the subject. But it’s too soon to say what that is, in case it doesn’t happen.


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